The Pedagogics of Dada
- Written by Howard McCalebb
Art practice is appraised within the exigency of its time. The Modern Art movements were pedagogical in spirit. In other worlds, they had as their missions to question through art practice, what their convictions were, about what Art was and what Art wasn't.
“Poetry springs from something deeper; it’s beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom. It’s a thing of its own; it has a nature of its own.”
— Jorge Luis Borges.
Artwork is not just something made out of the appropriate materials, and simply called Art. All artwork are representations. Art making is a practice of representation, as the artist works within changing systems and codes, which act upon (affect) how and why artwork is produced, and how it is experienced.
The history of Modern Art is basically a series of lessons. It had long been understood that enlightenment and sophistication were to be acquired through an evolved education and exposure to advanced artworks. So then, what is the pedagogical value of a kind of artwork, that many believe their child can make? Was Modern Art a hoax? Without the esoteric keys, Modern Art left many people bewildered and irritated. The Dada art movement, for sure, requires specific information to open up its meaning and purpose, which also includes knowledge of the historical events that incubated its germination.
Does Dada offer one of Modern Art’s many lessons?
The pedagogics of Modern Art posed as a science of teaching. Modern Art attempted to impart advanced knowledge or sense that resulted from the direct experience of looking, seeing, and comprehending. It attempted to act as an example, by teaching things not previously understood or accepted, including tastes and attitudes that were regarded as nontraditional. Dada initiated a strong rebuke to conventional ways of seeing and understanding, by confronting viewers on how to see and understand cultural production.
Modern Art was produced from the late 1860s through the 1970s. It was a genre of art practice that strayed from traditional techniques and styles that rejected accepted forms to emphasized individual experimentation and sensibility. It was based on what was understood to be the “current” sociopolitical and cultural developments – of the epoch. The “modern” of Modern Art connotes its belonging to the present period in history. The Modern Art movements consisted of the latest, most advanced approaches to thinking and art making, using the most advanced materials, equipment, and techniques available – at that time. Their resources were those that had been “newly” developed. Modern Art understood itself as the latest and most recent stage in the development of a (cultural) language.
Pre-modern art practices were revered cultural institutions that had evolved over many generations. They prized artwork that exemplified a human endeavor for highly skilled technique, in the production of visual representations. Pre-modern art understood the notion of “culture”, i.e. the visual arts, music, literature, and related intellectual activities, as respecting the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behavior of a civilization of shared beliefs, that identified with and signed Europe as a particular culture.
Signing and or Rebounding within Recent Developments.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
Modern Art as a genre of art practice that strayed radically from tradition fits comfortably within Hegel’s system of Dialectics. Hegel was the ﬁrst historicist philosopher, who understood (art) history as a coherent, evolutionary process. His principle of Dialectical Negativity remains the dominant paradigm of Western art historicism. Hegel's doctrine holds that artwork exemplify advanced developmental stages within their cultures and that the history of visual art practice demonstrates cultural progress, through which new levels of development are achieved by means of the necessary opposition of contradictory (new) ideas. The new genres of art practices arising in mid-19th Century Europe were largely influenced by the culturally disruptive onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Modern Art can be viewed as a “Signing” and or a “Rebounding” within a quagmire of recent developments.
Among the new art practices that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution:
Dada (the appropriation of factory manufactured objects)
Also belonging to this historical epoch was the terror of Western European Colonialism. The new kinds of art practices that emerged out of colonialism were primarily the paintings of Gauguin, Cubism, and those practices that evolved out of or followed Cubism.
The modern artwork created by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, as clear examples, carried the ghostly presence of peoples from far away lands – namely Asians and Africans. The sudden appearance of unexpected and seemingly grotesque images emerged from the psyches of European artists living and working within the Western European Colonialist epoch, as they were overcome by encounters with foreign tastes and attitudes, that were conspicuously not of European character and tradition. The materialization of these new art practices emerged from the European artist’s ennui - and the historical fact of the global expansion of Western Europe through colonialist adventure.
The new art practices that emerged out of European Colonialism:
Paul Gauguin’s primitivism
Analytic Cubism (1907–12)
Synthetic Cubism (1913 through the 1920s)
Collage was also introduced at this time.
The deliberate appropriations of Asian and African aesthetics by the Paris based Modern artists presaged future calamities.
The residual effects of European Colonialism has brought us to today’s European distress with Multiculturalism, and fear of cultural Miscegenation - arising from the presence of the “other”. Today’s cataclysmic rise in human migration is a direct legacy of the global expansion of Western Europe.
Multiculturalism in Western societies is regarded as a kind of apocalypse.
In the summer of 2015, people from Syria, Iraq and others fleeing war and persecution began to stream into Western Europe. Many Europeans were welcoming of the migrants, but far-right groups protested their arrival. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned that extremist groups might try to take advantage of the situation to stoke local prejudices against foreigners.
Foreign presences now challenge European traditions from within the European societies themselves, not by the earlier appropriations of Asian and African aesthetics by European artists, but by the foreign presence of the “others” themselves – in Europe itself. Emanating out of Hegel’s theory of the dialectics of historical evolution is a “pluralist stasis”, which can be viewed from within the Western Art World, as the latest resistance to inclusion in the further evolving Western societies’ own cultural histories. This could be understood as an epoch of reckoning.
Modern Syria became independent in 1946 following a period of French occupation (1917-1920) and Mandate (1920-1946). In October 1918, British troops advanced into Syria and captured Damascus and Aleppo, and Syria became a League of Nations mandate under French control in 1920. The Mandate for Syria and Lebanon was implemented after World War I, and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. During the two years that followed the end of the war in 1918 – France gained control of Ottoman Syria (the territory of modern Syria). French troops remained in Syria until 1946.
Today, more than 4 million Syrians are fleeing a homeland riven by more than four years of civil war. Concurrently, France is launching air strikes in Syria. The French Prime Minister has said: "At the moment there are millions of Syrians who are displaced, and we're not going to receive 4 to 5 million Syrians."
Within the exigency of its time, Modern Art can be recognized as Signing and or Rebounding within the extant developments of its epoch. Several examples of French Modern Art sign Colonialism. Those Modern Art movements that sign the Industrial Revolution ask the question: what do we do with this gift of new materials and processes? Impressionism as a reaction to the invention to the Camera, sign the Industrial Revolution in an oblique way, by rebounding and proposing a strategy that pushed Western European painting towards Abstraction. The Impressionists’ response to photography centers its pedagogical focus on how we see and comprehend images – both naturally and scientifically. Dada centered its pedagogical focus on the significance of the objects of everyday life. Marcel DuChamp’s Readymades proposed that the essence of Art could reside in industrially manufactured objects that were never intended as artwork.
Marcel DuChamp: a Statesman and or a Strategist?
The core of the Dada art movement centers on Marcel DuChamp and his notion of the anti-retinal. For DuChamp the hermeneutics the art object goes deeper than what we see - or the simply “retinal”.
The Readymade and the Assisted Readymade:
Readymade and Assisted Readymade are words and terms invented by Duchamp to describe artwork he created by appropriating factory manufactured objects - whole or in combination with another factory manufactured object. Duchamp’s readymades included Fountain 1917, a factory manufactured men’s urinal signed by the artist with a false name (R. Mutt) and exhibited on a pedestal placed on its back as an artwork, and In Advance of the Broken Arm 1915, which was simply a factory manufactured snow shovel. His assisted readymades includes Bicycle 1915, a factory manufactured bicycle wheel mounted on a factory manufactured wooden stool.
The theory behind the readymade as explained: whether Duchamp with his own hands made the Fountain or not was not important. He CHOSE it. Simply choosing the object was in itself the creative act. He took an ordinary factory manufactured object, and “reassigned” it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new point of view. He over-coded the chosen incidental object with a “cerebral“ concept. By canceling its “previous” function, the incidental factory manufactured object was declared and thus became an artwork. The result was that both the chosen object and the superimposed concept appear simultaneously. Duchamp’s practice (statements) asserted the principle that it is the artist who defines what is artwork!
DuChamp’s position within the Dada pole of Hegel’s historical dialectics poses this proposition: true Art emanates from something that is occurring over and over in human nature - it is not solely the product of approved cultural or “institutional” endeavor. Art practice is a purely automatic visual projection of the urges of the unconscious, which may be collective in their origin rather than personal or individual, or even cultural.
Was Dada Reactionary or Revolutionary?
Like several Modern Art movements Dada had a reactionary impulse. The Dada artists reacted against the sociopolitical conditions their epoch (World War I) they considered untenable. World War I (1914-1918) which was at that time the deadliest war in human history, resulted in up to 65 million deaths, also greatly facilitated the onset of World War II (1939-1945), and the loss of up to 85 Million more lives.
The Modern artists were Reactionaries. Dada was reactionary and did achieve some revolutionary things. It was recognized that if you stop reacting you stop living. If you are dead, you don't react anymore. All human thinking is, in a way, reacting. And, we may have to, under certain critical conditions, react against institutionally “codified” and outdated ideas and practices. To codify cultural and or art practices, is to arrange things into laws, rules, or principles, and into an “official” organization of systems or codes.
Morality, relating to and thinking about how human beings should behave ideally, one’s conscience may reveal what is right or wrong, rather than what is commonly known to be right or just within the sanctions of a particular sociopolitical ethos. Under certain critical conditions the individual must be capable of making decisions, and of taking actions based on both concrete knowledge and inner conviction.
What is absolutely critical here is Hegel’s recognition of "the perpetual duel" – which is how we deal with pro and con relationships. It represents the perpetual reoccurring duel of minds, beliefs, and values.
The Dada artists recoiled in horror from World War I. They had a clear “picture” of what was happening in international politics. They recognized that each intellectual achievement or technological discovery can be neutral in itself, but could be used for both good and bad objectives. When potent instrumental intellect and advanced technology was applied to making war, the Dada artists held firm to their belief that the scientists, inventors, and even the artists had a moral obligation to revere life and respect humanity. To this purpose the Dada artists created a highly (symbolic) intellectual art movement that was instrumentally useless – by employing in effect a reverse intellect.
The Dada Art movement was Revolutionary. According to the goals of a revolution, usually these goals are part of a certain ideology. In theory, each ideology could generate its own brand of revolutionaries. In practice, most revolutionaries are people dedicated to a purpose. Revolutionaries do not act merely through words or rhetoric – they act through deeds.
Ernesto (Che) Guevara (1928-1967)
The Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara said this about revolutionaries: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force."
There are numerous corresponding and contradicting philosophies representing concepts in art practice, and there are as many kinds of artwork as there are ideologies that inform them. The alignment of certain kinds of aesthetics resemble something very much like war, where there are camps that do not cross certain aesthetic lines. Those persons with the courage to take alternative actions evolve the culture and its sociopolitical ethos. The individual (artist) acting in rebellion attempts to redirect cultural progression through knowledge gathered by means of critical insight.
Revolutionaries have their purposes. You may want the change revolutionaries advocate, but you also have to look at the quality of the change they have in mind. Change in itself is not necessarily good. Change can be good or bad. There remains a question of quality. The Nazis were bad and therefore killing the Nazis was good, even though killing is bad, and war remains an immoral enterprise. In all of human life, every decision or act raises the necessary question of quality.
The Dada Art movement represented a marked change in the idea of what is art practice. The Dada artists were the precursors to a radically new and innovative idea about what is artwork and what is art practice. They were the lead to the development of new kind of artwork.
Hegel’s principle of Dialectical Negativity suggests that the Dada art movement exemplified an advanced developmental stage within European culture. As a precursor to later developments within the history of European art practices, Dada demonstrated cultural progress, through which new levels of development were achieved by means of the necessary opposition to previous concepts.
“Dada’s propaganda for a total repudiation of art was in itself a factor in the advancement of art.”
— Hans Richter
Without the Precedence of Dada would there be Conceptual Art?
The core, or the central and fundamental importance, of Dada centers on Marcel DuChamp’s notion of the anti-retinal. For DuChamp the hermeneutics of the art object goes directly to the “thinking” that underlines the significance of the object (artwork) as primarily conceptual – rather than material. The Retina is a light-sensitive layer at the back of the human eye that facilitates vision. The mind is the set of cognitive faculties that enables thought. The eye is for seeing, and the mind is for thinking and therefore conceiving. Consequently, the conception of the artwork (in this example) takes precedence over the merely seeing of the artwork. Duchamp’s cerebral acts (as art practice) are the genesis of Conceptual Art. Without the precursor of Dada, there would be no Conceptual Art, as it has unfolded historically.
“I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products.”
— Marcel DuChamp
Conceptual Art and Marxism: The Dematerialization of the Art Object.
To highlight a misconstrued understanding of what Conceptual Art “represents” to artists in the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, and even in China, the differences between independently evolved institutions and cultures serendipitously make for oblique perceptions of a foreign art practice, where it can be interpreted incorrectly. Conceptual Art is typically perceived in the former Communist countries as an art practice and “style” that represents from one view the sign of Capitalist societies, and from another view the freedom of expression within the so called Capitalist Democracies. Again, without the esoteric keys, the meaning of an artwork may be misinterpreted.
Conceptual Art is rooted in Marxist ideology. It had as its goal the destruction of the commodity value of artwork as a material object. Conceptual Art promoted “dematerialization” or anti-commodity strategies, which are practices identified with Marxist ideology, wherein objects of art are referred to in the Marxist term “artwork”. Marxism critiques the structural dynamic of capitalist societies, and its relationship between capital and labor, or in this example between art dealers, art collectors, and artists - a relationship Conceptual Art took as an underlying cause to destroy.
Based on a Hegelian or contradictory concept of the art object, Conceptual Art breaks with the most fundamental and traditional conventions of Western European visual art culture, namely the exaltation of artwork as a material object. It is in terms of social convention that the function of artwork, through which cerebral acts emerged as a counter ideological stance, regarding how artwork is made, sold, and bought.
For the artist, complete liberation or autonomy from patrons may be impossible. There may be no immediate or easy alternative patronage to that of the known examples: the church, the state, or private capital. Under private patronage the value or lack of value of artwork is determined by the whim of the consumer. The collector, like the brothel patron, takes the elevated position in the relationship. The artist, like the brothel whore, takes the inferior position in the relationship.
Hegel’s concept of Dialectical Negativity provides a means to understand our changing and evolving conditions and relationships. The Modern era came to strength as the Industrial Revolution evolved to dominate Western culture, and at the beginning of the decline of European Colonialism. In both examples, during the first stages in their development everything went well. Then the world wars happened. Then the rebellions erupted in the occupied nations. And then, factory jobs (industrialism) enticed millions of people off the farms, and changed the way we would understand life, labor, and culture - forever.
Postmodernism and the Information Age:
Art practice is appraised within the exigency of its time. Currently, in our Postmodern epoch, which is the Information Age, a fundamental difference between Software (Postmodernism) verses Hardware (Modernism), or cerebral Concept verses physical Form “materialized”. But like everything in human life, there still remains the problem of quality.
What is the pedagogical value of Dada?
Was Dada a hoax? No it wasn’t. Without the esoteric keys: the sociopolitical, cultural, and historical context does Dada make any sense? No it doesn’t. Dada was a protest expression and was never intended to make any sense in terms of instrumental purposes – like war!
What the Dada art movement represented as a knowledge that could be useful today is its example of cognition.
To stave off moral and therefore cultural stagnation, can be the impetuous of the naturally reoccurring drive of cultural evolution. The predicament, referring both to a particular culture or civilization, and to their arts and intellectual activities, the prospect of stagnation is omnipresent. Maintaining the condition of no evolution or progress obstructs the process of growth. Hegel's principle of Dialectical Negativity holds that new levels of development are achieved by means of the necessary opposition to defunct ideas and practices.
The pedagogical dreams of the Modern Art movements were very ambitious artistically, intellectually, and culturally. The tenants of Modern Art have certainly tested humanity’s capacity for adaptation and resilience. As the precursor to today’s International Contemporary Art, despite its Internationalist ideology, European Modern Art has triumphed in a way that was unimaginable at its origins. However, this influence in itself is not necessarily good. Influence can be good or bad. There remains the question of quality.
 France 'to launch Syria air strikes to help stop flow of refugees', by Rob Crilly, Telegraph.co.uk,
10 Sep 2015
 Anonymous, “The Richard Mutt Case”, from The Blind Man, (New York 1917).
 "Socialism and Man in Cuba" A letter to Carlos Quijano, editor of Marcha, a weekly newspaper published in Montevideo, Uruguay; published as "From Algiers, for Marcha: The Cuban Revolution Today" by Che Guevara on March 12, 1965
 Hans Richter, “Dada Art and Anti-Art”, in Dadas on Art, Edited by Lucy R. Lippard, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, page 40.
 From James Johnson Sweeney, Interview with Marcel DuChamp, in “Eleven Europeans in America,” The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, XIII, no. 4-5 (1946)